The beauty of brokenness

An old building in disrepair, collapsing toward the ground.

A rusting, defective car, stuck in layers of mud.

Shattered glass.

Melting candle.

Cracked eggshells.

Chipped ceramics.

The sight of the simplest crack in a sidewalk can still my body, stun my soul.

The colors and textures of a simple, broken branch can inspire poetry.

It may be a bit bizarre, but brokenness really can become a gallery art piece to me.

I am in awe of the beauty of brokenness because I relate to the ordinary being an un-mended mess—a mix of decay and transformation. The objects all around me feel familiar because I have been broken and mended, again and again.

I love this poem about brokenness.

This Psalm also speaks to me, deeply:

Into your hands I commend my spirit;

you will redeem me, LORD, God of truth.

Be gracious to me, LORD, for I am in distress;

affliction is wearing down my eyes,

my throat and my insides.

My life is worn out by sorrow,

and my years by sighing.

My strength fails in my affliction;

my bones are wearing down.

Be strong and take heart,

all who hope in the LORD.

I am forgotten, out of mind like the dead;

I am like a worn-out tool.

I hear the whispers of the crowd;

terrors are all around me.

But I trust in you, LORD;

I say, “You are my God.”

Let your face shine on your servant;

save me in your mercy.

Oftentimes, it seems that brokenness is what helps me to become most in touch with my humanity; I know that this part of my nature doesn’t make me unique. In service and contemplation, I have touched physical and mental wounds in myself and others. I have heard people pour forth the worse of spiritual sorrow, anguish and misery. At times, my own doubts and struggles have been so intense that I felt incapable of doing anything but collapsing, quitting. Don’t we all feel dysfunctional, inoperable and crumbled in certain circumstances, in one way or another?

It seems to me that the season of Lent has much to do with this brokenness. As Holy Week nears and we enter into the most sacred days of the Church year, let us check in. What has happened in our hearts and in our lives as a result of our fasting, praying and penance in the desert? How have these desert days helped us to recognize where we are in need of mending, healing and reconciliation in our lives? How have our eyes been opened to the truth of our interdependence, of how we are made for community, for Christ, for others? How have we been transformed and changed? And what scars can we now bear more courageously?

A few weeks ago, I presented a program at the spirituality center where I minister about this passion of mine, the beauty of brokenness. After shared contemplation, we attempted to convey our reflections through the Japanese craft of kintsugi, which repairs objects with gold in order to highlight and honor the history of the object: the beauty of the cracks.

Here is where I learned about how to experience kintsugi, without becoming an apprentice in Japan.

During the workshop, we considered how we all might be like broken cups within God’s hands as we tried to piece them together—a complex, layered puzzle. Another poem, “The Perfect Cup” by Joyce Rupp, helped foster this reflection.

Honestly, I found it challenging to try kintsugi. My fingers became sticky, gold-spattered messes. I even cut my fingers a little on the broken cup I tried to repair. In the end, though, I really liked what I held in my hands.

In fact, I have decided that what I created is a perfect vessel for light, a beautiful place to burn candles within.

broken-cup-by-Julia-Walsh
Photo by Sister Julia Walsh

Leonard Cohen’s song “Anthem” includes the lyrics “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” My experience trying kintsugi and reflecting on my likeness to a broken cup in God’s hands caused a spin on Cohen’s wisdom to emerge.

I believe we all are broken so that God’s light can shine out through our cracks.

By God’s grace, let us be strengthened and transformed so we can see the beauty of our brokenness. With the arrival of Holy Week around the corner, may we be ready for God’s light to beam brightly from us all. May the resurrection energy shine through our cracks, so we can help illumine dimness near and far. Amen! 

Mud, muck, and the courage of change

I love hearing the stories of the early Church, especially as they are proclaimed everyday at Mass during the Easter season. Their adventures, as are found in the Book of Acts, reminds me that the truth and joy that come from Christ’s resurrection has truly established renewal for all creation. We are one. We are free!

The energy and courage found in the early Church can enliven us today. None of us need to be afraid to share our faith. We can let go of our fears to take risks for the reign of God. We can live with strong trust in God and faithsuch courage can set all sorts of miracles into motion.

God has graced us with all we need to truly change the world!

Certainly, we don’t need to look too far to see that Christ-centered change is actually very messy. The season of springof beauty and life poking out of the mud and muck of what was once dead and dormantshows us that being courageous with our compassion and witness is far from neat and tidy. The mess of transformation is demanding, active, and fierce.

Photo credit: https://strangfordloughnationaltrust.files.wordpress.com

Parker Palmer’s recent reflection Spring is Mud and Miracle (published online at On Being with Krista Tippet) reminded me of this:

There’s a miracle inside that muddy mess: those fields are a seedbed for rebirth. I love the fact that the word humus, the decayed organic matter that feeds the roots of plants, comes from the same word-root that gives rise to humility. It’s an etymology in which I find forgiveness, blessing, and grace. It reminds me that the humiliating events of life — events that leave “mud on my face” or “make my name mud” — can create the fertile soil that nourishes new growth.

Spring begins tentatively, but it advances with a tenacity that never fails to touch me. The smallest and most tender shoots insist on having their way, pressing up through ground that looked, only a few weeks earlier, as if it would never grow anything again. The crocuses and snowdrops don’t bloom for long. But their mere appearance, however brief, is always a harbinger of hope — and from those small beginnings, hope grows at a geometric rate. 

During this Easter season I desire to accept the mess and muck as natural. My humanity is a gift. The muck of life can be thick and heavy, but it really is a sign of hope out of which can spring forth the determination of goodness.

True, it is messy and disturbing to encounter the world, but the muck is a necessary part of the freedom that comes from growth. We can have courage to change. Even though it can be hard to learn the truth, new awareness can crack light into my soul. Yes, service may wear me out but my weakness can open a way for me to get closer to my community. Although reaching out will mean I’ll inevitably encounter the hurting parts of our world that I’d rather hide from: witnessing as a healer, lover, server and friend may mean that I will end up bruised and broken. And changed.

In the midst of the muddy mess, I will choose to be encouraged. It is only through decay that new life can come. It is only through the stink, the goo, the pain of life that transformations will emerge. I know I am on the right path and really walking with The Way if I am breaking through barriers and getting hurt outside my comfort zone. This is the life of abundance, life to the fullest, the real Gospel way. The mud means I am moving in the right direction, serving and loving in union with Christ.

Yes, let us move out, singing songs of service and love, not afraid of the inevitable mess and muck, because it is part of transformation! Pope Francis encourages us:

“I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.”  – Pope Francis (Evangelii Gaudium, #49)

And, Alex Street’s song Beautiful Mess can be our anthem as we go:

Amen! Alleluia!

Lent: Time to make some changes

Last week, I bemoaned Lent’s fast approach on Twitter:

Ready or not, Lent is here and it is time to get into it—time to get into the spirit of prayer, fasting and almsgiving in order to experience great conversion during this sacred season.

It’s time to make some changes.

On this Ash Wednesday we are marked with signs of Truth: all of us are sinners, all of us need to repent, all of us have humanity in common. The fact that we came from dirt and shall return to dirt is one of the great equalizers among us.

Photo credit: http://adamsartgallery.com/art-from-ashes/

Because we are not God we all are imperfect, and must work together for growth and development. No matter which Lenten practices we commit to today, let’s remember it takes a lot work—two months on average—to really change our habits.

The ashes say it: Lent is a time to remember how connected, how communal we’re designed to be. As we change and become better together, let us remain patient—let us be compassionate when changes come tough.

Together, then, changed by our Lenten practices and the grace of God, let us unite as one and return to God with all that we are.

Amen!

On Love and Suffering: A Conversation with my Dad

In honor of Father’s Day, I decided to ask my dad, Kevin Walsh, a few questions.

Kevin and Julia Walsh, Postville March, July 2008
Kevin and Julia Walsh at the Postville, Iowa, march for immigration justice,  July 2008

Considering that many of us do not know our fathers, I am very blessed to have a very loving, supportive and caring father. My dad is a deep thinker, knowledgeable, wise, prayerful and at times, very jovial. He also has a great sense of humor. I didn’t give him any warning that I was going to do this or give him much time to think about the questions, so I am very grateful he agreed. Still, he had a disclaimer. He said, “Being that I have a short-sleeved shirt on, this is all very off-the-cuff.”

What is one of the best things about being a dad?

Watching my children grow from infants, from children, to young adults and into adulthood and moving on in their lives. Helping you interpret different things going on in your lives and in your environment and supporting you through different milestones. Teaching you kids to go with the flow but responding when you need to for the sake of justice, for the sake of your own self-esteem and what you have learned is right.

In other words, to quote something I’ve heard from others, the best thing is “to give my children roots and wings.” I tried to give the roots of Christianity and roots of understanding your heritage. Roots in a disciplined and ordered life. Roots so you know that we’re here on earth to make a difference—which kind of fits with the Christianity thing, and living simply and simply living.

Those are a hodgepodge of things. Some are roots. Some are wings. Some are both roots and wings.

What is one of the hardest things about being a dad?

Watching my children suffer; watching them struggle and knowing I am powerless over their struggle. Knowing their struggle is their struggle and they need to figure it out. I’ve taught my children how to fish and now they need to put their hook in the water and they have to fish.

The hardest thing was when you got injured when you had your accident and fell off the cliff.

[Note from Sister Julia: My dad is referring to an accident I had in the summer of 2007 that left me in critical condition for several days. I have not (yet) written publicly about the experience, but I once told the story in front of a live audience during a special event with The Moth.]

Was that really the hardest moment in all your years of being a dad and for all four of us kids, Dad?

Yes, most recently at least. Also when Hans [my brother] was born and was having seizures, that was awful also.

Watching a person suffer and knowing you’re helpless and powerless over that situation is awful—when that person is your child and you are a parent it’s really awful, for as a parent you want to be a nurturer.

But that’s not to say that the pain and suffering wasn’t formative. I grew tremendously because of that experience both emotionally and spiritually. The growth I had is unfathomable.

How has being a dad changed you as a person?

It’s made me more human in that I have experienced and have learned how to love like I never loved before.

It’s made me understand the same responsibilities that God has for his creation. So it has changed me and made a co-creator with God and given me responsibility to take care of creation and to realize the Creator’s work is never done. There’s always newness and renewal coming in the relationship between the Father and the children—as well as potential for renewal between me and my children.

Thanks so much Dad! 

And, Happy Father’s Day everyone!

 

 

Beautiful chaos and Lenten conversion

Recently, I asked my students what comes to mind when they hear the phrase “Kingdom of God.” This (low-quality) photo summarizes the lively classroom discussion that occurred that day.

"Kingdom of God Period 6 Classroom Discussion" photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA
“Kingdom of God Period 6 Classroom Discussion” photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA

As I told my students, I intentionally recorded all their comments on the board in a very messy fashion because I want them to see that the Kingdom of God is not orderly and predictable. In fact, living in the Kingdom of God that Jesus established means that we are living in the midst of beautiful chaos.

Through the incarnation Christ empowered us build the Kingdom of God. And, if we’re doing the work of building the Kingdom of God, we’re people who are moving into the chaos, out of our comfort zones, and toward the margins of society.

As we serve others we are invited into more chaos, into encounters and relationships that may disturb us. We love and serve those who Christ loves, we go against our natural inclinations and logic. We love our enemies and those who may not deserve it. We give and love without judgement or attachment. We remember that “we are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.

The chaos, the messiness of building the Kingdom of God is the stuff of beautiful chaos. It is also the stuff of personal and social conversion. During this Lenten season, our actions of prayer, fasting and almsgiving challenge us to confront the uncomfortable corners in ourselves that are in need of God’s loving attention. As we let go of attachments and rearrange a bit of our living, an ugly seeming image of ourselves can emerge. We look at ourselves and see an inner chaos; we feel disturbed by truth. We need to grow, to be different, to convert more fully into who God made us to be.

I recently heard another Sister speak about how the chaos of a crisis gives us a chance to make a choice, frequently providing just the impetus we need to change. She connected these vital moments that invite our personal growth to the designs in God’s creation. When we study nature, she mentioned, we can recognize that the next evolutionary stage erupts when there is crisis and a need for change to occur.

I feel as if I am on this edge. The chaos of my weakness swirls about me, challenging me to make choices. I started Lent two weeks ago with a bit of my typical overambitious and idealistic intentions. And then I quickly started failing. Days would get busy and I would forget that about the extra tasks I wanted to do, like writing a card to someone I love each day. Now I am challenged to ask myself difficult questions, like why am unrealistic with myself? And, am I making enough time for others? I am challenged to move to more self-awareness and allowed to make another choice.

Each of us dance with questions and disturbances in the chaos of God’s Kingdom. We are allowed to make choices that allow for greater personal growth. We are invited to encounter the chaos that is the lives of others.

Then together–as a community–we change the structures, systems and inner oppression that don’t allow God’s Kingdom to fully come into the here and now. We forgive. We heal. We teach. We love our neighbors as we love ourselves. We love God with all that we are. Then, the peace, justice and love that is the Kingdom of God can be known in this time now.

Amen!

 

 

Anticipation and Ashes

photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
Photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA

 

tomorrow, everywhere:

next to strangers

friends, neighbors

 

We form lines.

 

around blocks

down church aisles

arise and admit

we sin, we suck

we need more

than good luck

 

We need God.

 

Love marks

black truth

creased skin

 

We all are part dirt.

 

for 40 days, commit

to fast, to strip

purify. gone will be

that which clogs, prevents

our made-for-God living.

 

Yes Sweet Love,

Change is coming.

 

 

More than boy-crazy

“How can you be a nun? You’re the most boy-crazy girl I know!”

My good friend first jokingly teased me with this question when we were both still teenagers. I was in the earliest stages of my discernment at the time, and I couldn’t give her a good answer to her question.

That was nearly two decades ago. I like to think that I’ve matured a lot since I was a boy-crazy teenager, and that I’ve come to understand how the complex parts of my personality can all enrich my relationship with God. Over the years, I have become convinced that God used my teenaged feelings to steer me toward my vocation. In fact, being “boy-crazy” actually influenced my first experience of “call” to the Catholic Sisterhood.

I was a teen who deeply desired to please God. I remember praying for guidance regarding my attraction to a certain boy while alone in my bedroom one night. As I prayed, I heard a very intense answer….

 [This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report.  Continue reading here.

Photo credit: “Journey Through the Bible, WordPress”

The sower and the dirt

Sitting on the porch, I watch a robin alight on our lawn, a hopeful sign of spring.  She pecks in the newly turned dirt and nibbles a seed. My mind rages. “Hey! That’s my grass seed we just planted! What do you think you’re doing?”

Big muddy bare spots dot our lawn now that the snow pack is gone. Yesterday, my housemates and I got out in the yard with rakes and seeds to try to bring grass back to these wounded parts. As the robin eats the seed I realize the Parable of the Sower (Mark 4:3-20) is not abstract. I don’t usually sow seeds over a large patch of earth. The hard rocky path, the birds that sweep down, the brambles that grow up and choke out the good harvest seem like sweet and distant metaphors. But that bird just ate my seed! And there’s nothing I can do about it. Tonight’s rain could flood the fledgling seeds and wash them into the sidewalk. The neighboring high school students could trample over the yard on the way to class, hardening the soil and making it impossible to grow. More snow could fall. In Wisconsin, in fact, that’s quite likely. A whole flock of robins could find our fragile patch of ground and all the seeds would be gone. There’s nothing I could do.

The helplessness of God and the faithful disciple is highlighted in Jesus’ crucial parable. The seed is the Word of God. In our faithful evangelizing we spread the word of God everywhere we go over the ground of our circumstances. Faith in our life meets the often unfriendly and difficult realities of our daily lives. The birds eat it. The seed falls on rocky ground and the shoot sprouts up only to be withered by the sun and die. The weeds strangle out the good seeds and nothing comes of it. My life is busy and full of distractions. I can’t forgive the evils done against me. No one seems to understand. It’s so much easier to avoid helping out and just watch TV. Sickness, grief, loss and depression paralyze me, making it difficult to function. My heart is hard and rocky and full of lots of weeds.

Some scholars say this should be called The Parable of the Different Soils. The point of the story is not really about the sower or even about the seed. God’s good word pours down endlessly abundant with grace. We, however, do not always receive it. Our heart is the soil. Life’s daily grind and sorrows are the obstacles. The point is there are different types of soil—not just in the human family but also over the course of my own lifetime. Sometimes I am obstinate. Sometimes I am distracted by wealth and good times and easy fixes. Sometimes if feels like every day I am starting from scratch.

Actually, every day I am starting over and maybe that’s the point. Each morning I am given the choice to just live today. To give my day to God. To try my best. To not be anxious about tomorrow or depressed about yesterday. I am not being glib here. This is not easy. Sometimes it takes my entire willpower to get out of bed and brush my teeth and not be paralyzed by fear and sadness. I get stuck so often. Every moment is an opportunity to try again, again, and again.

Often, all I see is the seed that doesn’t grow and all the barriers in my ways. But this story is good news! For starters, God is sowing the good word in our hearts. This is the gift of all gifts. Plus, the good soil produces an overwhelming harvest: 30, 60 and 100-fold. Faith sustains us. Love transforms us. There is hope even for my muddy patches of lawn. The good harvest comes even to our rocky hearts.

Photo credit: http://www.scotts.com/smg/article/info-how_to/image/new_grass_T.jpg

Lent is my restart button

Some days, I feel like I just want a restart button.

From: http://randalldsmith.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/restart-windows.png

At times, I even feel this way about my life.

And then, when I look at all the problems in the world, aware of how complicated and messy the issues of injustice really are, I frequently feel the same way.

I just want to press a button and let everything reboot, wake up all refreshed and renewed and ready to do things much better, to be more like we’re supposed to be.

That’s why I love this sacred season of Lent. I want to grow, I desire holiness, I pray for justice. I really do believe that things can be better and through God’s grace, we have something to do with it.

Back on Ash Wednesday there was a lot of chatter about what people were “giving up” for Lent. I didn’t chime in then, but now I’ll tell you some of what I’m up to.  A full Lenten experience is not just about “giving things up” but committing to any activities of prayer, fasting and almsgiving in order to, in a sense, restart our relationships with God and others.

In fact, I am finding that the actions I have been taking work much more gradually than it does when I push a restart button. People and social problems aren’t machines, after all. Forty days is probably a good amount of time for a proper restart.

  • In my classroom, my students and I have been praying with the CRS Lenten calendar and putting money in our rice bowl.
  • In my living community, the sisters and I are eating vegetarian then donating the money we would have spent on meat to the area warming center. We are holding Friday nights as a silent hermitage time for contemplation. Plus, a couple of us started volunteering at a free community dinner, which I think we’ll continue doing after Lent.
  • Personally, I am praying with the daily readings all through Lent.  And, I’m using a web-browser add-on called Waste No Time to stop me from using Facebook or Twitter for more than 10 minutes a day.
  • Lastly, today I’m leading a small group of youth in a CRS Food Fast retreat. Please say a prayer for the high school students who are fasting and will engage in service-learning and prayer activities after school.  All of our actions should help us be in solidarity with those who are really hungry in other parts of the world.

The restart process is not pain-free, of course, but it’s so worth it.  Basically, the activities of Lent are chipping away at the hardness in my heart and helping me learn some big lessons:

  • The acts of service and fasting have taught me that I am way too comfortable, not just materially, but also with my plans. I’ve realized that I have fallen into a bit of a rut of liking my routine to be a certain way.  Even though I have good intentions, I practically walk around every day with my focus on my to-do list with a giant “do not disturb” sign hanging from my face. How can I help build up the kingdom of God if I am not open, flexible and available? Am I awake to the work of God?
  • Speaking to being awake to the work of God, the activities of prayer have helped me gain a deeper desire for more intimacy with God.  I entered Lent looking forward to my Triduum because then I could have a little vacation. Now, I am hoping for a silent retreat over those days, almost isolated from civilization.
  • Lastly, I believe again that every little action has an impact. I realized that sometimes when I pray or do acts of charity I am tempted to become cynical about whether I am really making a difference. Now, because of some feedback received from others, I’m remembering that the littlest things do indeed matter; we just don’t always know how.  This interdependence among us reaches across the globe to our brothers and sisters who are desperate for the pennies that we throw away, too. Our choices to be in solidarity with them this Lent really improve their livelihood, thanks be to God. This video helps me understand that:

Ultimately, the Lenten restart button that I was hoping for has had an impact on me. I have gotten disturbed. I am changed. I am getting to be a bit better, we all are.

And, for this I am very thankful.

 

Imperfect follower

If you’re anything like most humans, even if you’re talented at something and called to do it for the good of the world, you were unlikely immediately amazing at it.

This is true for our faith life too. Following Jesus is, in a way, like a craft.  And this video reflection reminded me of that:

As far as discipleship goes, I am so far from being an expert. I am even further from mastery and perfection.

That’s why many of us who are religious speak about our prayer “practice” or ministry “practice” and so on. We realize we won’t start off with an expert status, and even a lifetime of this work will not perfect us.  We have to persevere and remember that we really are a work in progress.

I am just finishing an online class about the theology and practice of ministry.  The class has helped me feel assured that I am OK at the ministry of teaching after all. What makes me OK at it, apparently, is that I am open to learning and growing, can communicate well, and  am somewhat knowledgeable.  According to this book that we read in the class, those are the main charisms (gifts from the Holy Spirit) needed for teaching. This gives me hope!

I used to feel really insecure about how I lived my faith and how I ministered. I often felt like I would fall short, and I still frequently do. I know that I could always do better.

Recently my students were working on their contributions to the city-wide Compassion Project.  During our discussion about the components of compassion, I was reminded of something I need to keep in mind: I must be patient with myself as well as with others. We really do learn as we go, don’t we? This is one of the reason forgiveness is such an important part of our Christian life. Certainly our main motive guides us: we want to love as God loves. 

I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus. Philippians 1:6

Yes, I am learning. I think I get it now. I must be patient with myself and keep persevering. For I am in God hands. Evidently,  in order to becoming the loving woman who God made me to be,  it will take a while and this is quite OK. I just hope I can remember this most of the time. Even if I forget, the good news is that with God I’ll have some more chances to try again! 

Whew. What a relief! 

Photo credit: http://weltenmusterung.tumblr.com/)